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Experiences, Policies

Systemic (ir)responsibility in Australian universities

For those of us who are “Year-in:year-out” (YIYO’s) or “session-by-session” university teachers, the start of the new academic year is the time we all try to refocus on the joy of teaching. Session-by-session teachers have just finished four months in the summer semester wilderness waiting for the drought to break in the driest of professions. For four months, our hopelessness and uncertainty have festered as we wait to know whether there will be work this year.

The evidence of our anxiety is not exactly hidden – it’s scattered across social media and in discussions within session-by-session teacher networks, that universities mostly don’t see. More and more stories are emerging in these networks about the hardships of poverty, and families under immense stress. These hardships have real effects: real impacts on the health, welfare and mental capacities of YIYO university teachers.

These symptoms have been noted time and again by critics of the proliferation of YIYOs in universities, but little has been done about the cause of it. A major cause is systemic irresponsibility: the failure of universities to live up to their self-proclaimed principles and values, as stated in their own strategic mission statements and policies on student learning.

Yes, we read these too.

Every time YIYOs walk students through the Subject Guide in the first week of tutorials, these official policies and values are there staring back at us.

We know about the strategic plans that say that our institutions are dynamic places of learning, with the best staff, and a culture of “mutual respect and collegiality”, to quote one. We know about the Graduate Qualities that we advertise to students that talk about ethics, equity, responsibility and leadership, not to mention communication skills.

Australian universities with sizeable cohorts of YIYOs should think hard about these kinds of qualities that underpin the Learning Outcomes embedded into assessments in each and every university course, and that are at the very core of the rationale for why students undertake university courses.

It is a really sour experience for session-by-session teachers that we have to promote these qualities when universities fail to demonstrate that they have the capacity to live up to them. There is little to no evidence of ethics or responsibility when universities hire, fire and hang on to us, keeping us in limbo for years on end. And communication skills? More work needed there.

The question thousands of session-by-session teachers are asking is more than one of a contradiction in university jargon about graduate qualities and strategic mission statements, especially those that speak as though we’re not here at all. Systemic irresponsibility in universities needs to include taking action to restore justice and equitable treatment of the physical and mental wellbeing of the casual teachers at the heart of the professional university community. Long-term systemic failure to apply these values to us is bitterly ironic, sure—but it also undermines the very reason tertiary education is provided in Australia in the first place.

Post-Script:

This afternoon is Friday of Week 1.

48 hours ago I had no work. I discovered that I was regarded “M.I.A.” by my long time YIYO university. One reason is because an administrator had been emailing my university email account – which expired at the end of my last contract in 2013.

24 hours ago I was offered just two classes because a full-time academic requires more hours for administrative responsibilities. What luck.

Today, I still don’t have a teaching contract. My first class is on Tuesday. I haven’t received a Subject Guide or a copy of the reading materials. No access to the student roll; no idea which rooms my classes will be in or what facilities they offer for teaching. No access to the teaching resources store. I’m not even in the “system”, and because of this I have missed out on faculty updates about, for example, how to arrange access to an office space.

I expect to be having student consultations at a café`, which is where a lot of YIYOs end up – how insensitive to the students and their needs for privacy at the coalface of learning. YIYOs are expected to explain this predicament to students too.

Institutional accountability has clearly lapsed at the learning and teaching coalface. This is reckless, tactless and irresponsible practice by a university that impacts directly on students, but because we genuinely care about student welfare and development, it will hit YIYOs the hardest because our empathy means we absorb it and just get on with the job in our own time.

This is systemic irresponsibility in real time.

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “Systemic (ir)responsibility in Australian universities

  1. So precise and excellent. The gap between the marketing facade about teaching and learning being important to the university and these realities is wide indeed. It makes the existing of teaching support roles and units seem cynical. I know that fantastic people in those roles are aware that the reliance on sessional staff means that so many of their goals for improving teaching and learning are shackled (such as student wellbeing and inclusion, which is directly connected to sessional teachers’ wellbeing and inclusion). Even as we absorb the problems and the stress they are spread to the students.

    Posted by slapsista | March 8, 2014, 11:17 am
  2. Your story is like so many I heard when I interviewed casual academics at 2 universities for my research in 2011, late contracts, missing and incorrect payments, time wasting time sheets, no office or working computer and email addresses that disappear and take ages to reactivate. These were by no means isolated experiences. The just in time nature of much of the casual teaching places enormous stresses on casuals who I found to be overwhelmingly committed to doing the best for their students, often going way beyond what their contracts paid them for.
    Marc Bousquet notes in his 2008 book ‘How the university works: Higher education and the low wage nation’ that the university (he is writing about the US) is a fusion reactor for casualization more generally – not only casualising its own labour force but supplying a whole flexible labour force of students for casual work. So many parallels with what we see on our campuses today too.

    Posted by Robyn | March 10, 2014, 9:39 pm
    • Don’t get me started on time wasting timesheets. Our uni has gone electronic which means instead of just completed a paper document (in itself taking not a small amount of time), I now have to navigate a clunky ‘user interface’ with multiple errors being thrown up if I get dates wrong or the total hours claimed is excess. It now takes half an hour at least to claim for payment. Other non casual staff just get their pay each fortnight automatically – what a luxury!
      Robyn, how goes your PhD? I would be interested in reading it some time.

      Posted by ronnie | March 11, 2014, 6:54 pm

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